Broadly, there are two ways to play the linebacker position: On the ball, and off the ball. An on-ball linebacker is simply a standup edge rusher, similar to the old-school 3-4 outside linebackers, while off-ball linebackers are the 2nd level defenders you think of when you think of the position. With the true 3-4 and 4-3 largely vanishing, on-ball linebackers play the edge in all different kinds of defenses. For LSU the linebacker comes down to the Jack and 2 Inside Linebackers. The Jack, played last year by BJ Ojulari, is the team’s primary edge rusher. Last season, LSU faced an interesting, and healthily debated issue: what to do about Harold Perkins? He wasn’t quite ready to handle the amount of mental burden it takes to play inside linebacker, nor was he anywhere close to developed enough in his coverage ability. You could move him to the edge, but Ojulari had that position accounted for, and yet you couldn’t take him off the field. You also couldn’t, however, keep Perkins off the field. The result was a creative usage that involved playing a lot of base with him at the SAM position when they honestly really wanted to play nickel instead, flexible use as an edge rusher and spy respectively on passing downs, and some games (like Arkansas) where he played a lot of edge. This year, they have a different predicament. They have big openings at both Jack and ILB. As a recruit, Harold Perkins was projected to play ILB in college, in large part due to his body type, a compact 6’1, 225, and use in high school. According to Brian Kelly, that’s still their plan on standard downs (they will still likely move him around as a rusher on 3rd down).
I think, given what he showed last year, and his raw upside as an edge rusher, they should reconsider
Yes, LSU has a big need at ILB, but Perkins’ ability and upside as an edge rusher are RARE. Additionally, there are documented instances of teams trying to force natural edge rushers into ILB positions, which ended up with fans, analysts, and coaches alike wondering why players like Micah Parsons ever played anywhere else. You simply get more value out of a good edge rusher, much more value. Penn State got a ton out of Micah Parsons as an ILB, but had they shared the Cowboys’ vision, they’d have had a 15-20 sack, game-wrecking edge rusher. Parsons has a more typical edge body type, with more height and mass than Perkins, so he isn’t necessarily the best example, but Haason Reddick is similarly undersized, at 6’1, 235. In college, he was a dominant edge rusher. Despite this, his body type prompted the Cardinals to attempt an ill-fated move to ILB to start his career, believing his size would prevent his rush ability from translating. After a few disastrous years at ILB, he was moved back to his natural position, despite his unconventional body type. He quickly became a solid contributor, producing 2 consecutive double-digit sack seasons off the edge before signing with the Eagles. In Philadelphia, his 3rd year at the position, he exploded, racking up 16 sacks, 87 total pressures, and 5 forced fumbles en route to a top-5 finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting. In doing so, he created a blueprint for LSU to use a player like Harold Perkins, carrying an identical skillset and style, showing both how and why he can play the edge full-time.
Pass Rush Profiles
Rushing the passer is a lot like pitching in baseball. You have your fastball and you have your off-speed and breaking stuff off of it. If you can properly establish your fastball, you can get people sitting on it, and counter with a changeup they’re unprepared for. Rushing the passer is no different, some people have bigger arsenals, and some people rely on 2-3 really good pitches, but it’s all about having a plan and a sequence.
Reddick’s fastball is all about using his speed and bend to beat tackles to the perimeter. He’s one of the purest speed rushers in the game, and his hip flexibility allows him to turn tight corners and get around long reaches, staying outside and underneath the tackle’s punch.
Tackles can adjust to his speed by oversetting to the outside, this is where the changeup comes in. When tackles sell out to the perimeter, Reddick will use his agility on his inside move and punish them for opening up so widely.
Despite his lack of size, Reddick is able to channel his raw strength and speed to knock tackles back on bull rushes and speed-to-power moves. It’s not his best pitch, but if the tackle leaves their chest open like this, he has the momentum and force to put them in the QB’s lap despite weighing under 240.
Reddick’s hip flexibility also allows him to stay square and take tight, efficient routes on twists and games, which is essential and very often the difference between getting picked up and getting free to the QB. You have to give the OL as little time as possible to pass guys off and pick you up.
Like Reddick, Perkins makes his living with pure speed and bend around the edge. His explosiveness helps him get tackles outside their base, getting around/under the punch, and burning around the corner. His speed rush repertoire is well developed, especially for such an inexperienced pass rusher, with him breaking out a ghost move in the second play here, which is a very advanced, athletically difficult rush move that only the best speed rushers like Von Miller, can master. In the third, he uses an outside chop with his inside hand to disengage the outside hand of the tackle and shows the bend to get around him.
Like Reddick, the inside club is his main changeup when the tackle oversets in fear of the speed.
Again, despite being a light player, Perkins has the raw strength and speed to punish tackles for opening their chests.
Perkins' speed and flexibility, just like Reddick, make him a weapon on twists and games.
The big concern you have about players this small on the edge full-time is run defense. It’s concerning to have a player under 240 setting hard edges and taking on Tackles and TEs at the point of attack.
It’s a fair concern, but Reddick was able to hold his own as a run defender even with his frame. He wasn’t a total liability, and when you have this much pass rush ability and a talented DL to back you up as both LSU and the Eagles do, it’s more than worth it even if he is only okay. His athleticism alone will regardless provide TFLs in the run game anyway.
Harold Perkins’ talent and repertoire as an edge rusher last year were astonishing for any college player, let alone an 18-year-old learning the position. Think about the responsibilities that come with the ILB position. Playing off the ball, dropping into zones, sorting out interior gaps and leverage in the run game, man coverage on running backs, etc, do we really want a guy capable of all the above spending most of his time doing that stuff? Or do we want him pinning his ears back and hunting quarterbacks all the time? Don’t pass up a 15+ sack player like Penn State and the Cardinals did, even if he does end up being good at inside linebacker. I will open myself up to being wrong, maybe he’s just as good at inside linebacker, and the best way to use him is to let him do BOTH. Maybe I’m like the people who told Shohei Ohtani to choose between pitching and hitting, but if he’s able to toe that line, he’s a truly generational football player.